Good Friday reshapes our fear of death.
My son was three years old the first time I told him that people die.
Sitting at the table with a bowl of vegetables, he had asked what would happen if he stopped eating. Now I watched him consider his greens in light of this new information. I imagined the pieces connecting in his brain, the knowledge spreading to taint his innocence. For all I knew, he had only heard of death in relation to animals. How would he handle the idea that people are destructible — like the fly-bitten raccoons he’s seen on the pavement, or the insect carcasses we sweep into the trash?
He would know now that his humanity, and mine, could be stolen in an instant. That we are not gods but flesh, made of the same material as roadkill.
From now on, he would make his way through the world like the rest of us, grappling with the conundrum that caught Adam and Eve just outside of Eden. We may have unique spirits and unique faces, but we all have to reckon with bodies that bleed when cut, smell when dirty, and waste away when they contract a disease.
In Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the heroine, Tereza, agonizes over this impossible tension between body and soul, sameness and individuality, expressed for her in a recurring dream:
“[The dream was] horrifying from the outset. Marching naked in formation with a group of naked women was for Tereza the quintessential image of horror. When she lived at home, her mother forbade her to lock the bathroom door. What she meant by her injunction was: Your body is just like all other bodies; you have no right to shame; you have no reason to hide something that exists in millions of identical copies. In her mother’s world all bodies were the same and marched behind one another in formation.”
Like Tereza, my son will struggle to be a person with a distinct place in the world, in spite of the proof that he is also a corruptible body, an object in the biological environment. He’ll spend his life doing what humans are always doing—trying to invest our bodies and our world with meaning. He’ll worry about clothes and fashion. He’ll learn to navigate the complex systems of etiquette surrounding our activities, jobs, and titles. Maybe he’ll buy a sports car. Maybe he’ll tell stories, play the violin, study the stars.
And yet, there is death still looming—the force that converts an irreplaceable being back into dust. Facing death, I am a subject no longer, but merely an object. A corpse.
Into all these gloomy thoughts came my son’s unexpected answer.
Pushing the offending vegetables around his bowl, as though weighing the pros and cons, he said, “I would die? Like Jesus?”
Well, the vegetables still ended up in the trash; but I needn’t have worried about his innocence. How wonderful, to first learn of death as something that happened to Jesus. In a Bible lesson I don’t remember, the word was defined for my son as that sacrificial act of Christ’s, undone three days later. Why shouldn’t all other death seem merely an imitation of that archetype? However inexplicable, for my son, death carries no terror.
My son’s simple equation teaches me what I ought to have known. We rehearse it every year in Lent.
After Good Friday, death is redefined.
For us, Jesus is the tragic hero who, by dying, ennobles both life and death. As we recount the crucifixion story on Good Friday, we remember the paradoxical way the suffering we commemorate reshapes suffering forever.
Roger Scruton has argued that tragic art lets us reckon with death. He writes, “Surely the power of tragedy consists not, as Aristotle argued, in arousing and purging pity and fear, but in showing that we humans can face annihilation, and yet retain our dignity as free, self-conscious beings: that we can face suffering and death as individuals, and not merely as lumps of flesh.”
We don’t observe Lent in order to remind ourselves how horrible death is. I don’t need Mel Gibson’s Passion to teach me the cruelty of blood and pain. That horror already lurks too near, ready to crush me at the dinner table.
Rather, we fast in Lent and attend services to mark the place where terror was, but is no longer. We do it to push back the crippling fear and make room for the joy of Easter. We remember that, even before the Resurrection, the worst sting of suffering is lifted.
Since his death, dying for us is following in his pathway, imitating the hero. There is a sense in which, when we are hurt, or tempted, or killed, we are like Jesus. The knowledge that Christ has redefined these fearful things is, I pray, the knowledge that will allow my young son to act, suffer, and love as he grows up into a world of mysteries.